"We have to get our jobs done. The fans will come if we do that." -- Stan Kasten, in his last official press conference as Team President of the Washington Nationals.
Yesterday, not in the press conference room, but in the swanky President's Club, in a back corner by the big plate glass windows that overlook the Washington Nationals batting cages, outgoing Team President Stan Kasten gathered the Nats beat reporters, media relations and other front office staff, and held him own private fireside chat, presumably the last in his tenure with the Washington Nationals.
I say presumably because the man apparently still has some work to do for the Nats and he'll be retaining his ownership stake in the team, at least for the near future until he has his ultimate plans sorted out. Which he maintains he does not. Or at least won't discuss.
Kasten answered some of the questions frankly, and some not so much, employing his trademark elaborate "no comment". No one gives "no comment" like Stan.
The topics of the questions ranged from describing his emotions all the way to the scandal in the Dominican, and Kasten seemed eerily at ease, even for him, sitting in an oversized leather chair with his back to the wall, so no one could sneak up on him.
You can (and should) read the full transcript here, but there were a couple of snippets I wanted to pull out and talk about.
HIS IMMEDIATE FUTURE
|Stan Kasten at Nationals Park. (Photo by C. Nichols/Nats News Network)|
For the rest of the year, while he's still on the Nats payroll, Kasten has some loose ends he'll help clean up. Specifically, he mentioned the teams new radio deal and spring training situation as things he's been working on and will continue to help out with.
"Technically, I'm still a technical employee through the end of the year - although I am free to do whatever I want right now and today is my last official day. We're working on a radio deal for next year. Andy [Feffer] and his staff will be completing it, but I've been working on setting that up. I'm going to continue to help on that. We've been working pretty hard on the future of our spring training. We're looking hard at what might be doable in Viera. We're looking very hard at other alternatives in Florida. We've looked very hard at other alternatives in Arizona. I think there are going to be developments on that score soon. And I'm going to continue to help out on that."
The spring training comments were interesting, and he elaborated on it later in the discussion, mentioning the Dodgers' move to Arizona and the lack of close teams to play in the spring. Another mitigating factor is that of the six teams closest to the Nats facility in Viera, FL, three of them play in the same division as the Nats (the Mets, Marlins and Braves).
Kasten mentioned central Florida, the Gulf Cost, or even Arizona as possibilities if the team decides it want to move their spring operations. He also threw out the idea of trying to entice another team into a vacated area, perhaps alluding to Vero Beach, where the Dodgers trained forever until moving out last season.
HIS FUTURE PLANS
Kasten was pretty non-specific here. He again mentioned his five-year commitment to the Lerners and Major League Baseball and left it at that.
"It was a personal thing. I made the commitment to stay here for the five years. And as I told you a couple weeks ago, it just has to do with my own personal expectations, goals, aspirations for myself. I thought when I fulfilled this commitment -- and it was important that I did that -- but when I fulfilled it, I really thought I would be better doing something else. And that's all. I still love everyone here. I love this team. Love this city. But for my professional goals and aspirations, I think I need to be doing something else. It's really that simple."
He was asked specifically about moving into the Commissioner's Office, a theory that only intensified after Bob DuPuy, Bud Selig's second in command, stepped down somewhat mysteriously last week. Kasten deflected any attempt to discuss that situation, saying he was flattered he'd be thought of in that light, but dismissing it whole cloth.
"First of all, I reject the premise. I know no one in baseball who thinks Bud is stepping down in 2012. And everyone in baseball, starting with me, is very happy that he won't be, and we'll all encourage him to continue to stay there. I know it's chic to make fun of Bud, but you can't look at the things that have happened in the last two decades without giving a lot of credit to Bud for all he's done. I know that the people who write things like that intend it to be flattering, and I am flattered and appreciative for mentions like that. But I don't think things like that are really realistic. Those things aren't on my mind.
There's no point in discussing it. Again, I'm flattered by the question. But those questions are just kind of silly and really unrealistic. Truly, that's how I feel."
These rumors have been around for a while, and the fact that Kasten has repeated talked about this five-year commitment on two separate occasions, and that he isn't retiring but won't say what he's going to do only adds fuel to the fire.
It's hard to imagine a better qualified candidate, as Kasten has held a GM and/or President position in three of the major U.S. sports and was hand-picked by the Commissioner to build Nationals Park and make the Nats a viable team from the rotted carcass the was the Montreal Expos when it arrived in D.C. six years ago.
MLB will need a strong figure leading the owners in the upcoming CBA negotiations, and Kasten would seem to be a great fit in that, then easily slide into the big chair upon Selig's retirement after 2012, which Selig maintains will be the case. He'd be 75 by then, and this next CBA will probably end up the cap to an historic run as Commissioner.
THE STATE OF THE TEAM
Kasten maintained yesterday, as he did in his original announcement of his resignation, that he believes the Nationals are small steps away from contending. That might be optimistic thinking, but there are realistic pieces in place to build a playoff-contending team. He talked in some detail about the construction of the team, and his personal preference for how to build a winning baseball team.
"This past year, our minor league system produced not just Strasburg and Storen, but Desmond and Bernadina. Next year, at a minimum, we expect to be producing Ramos and Espinosa, and more. there will certainly be more.
We have a chart in our office for the classes that we foresee two years from now, three years from now, four years from now. Names will change, because that's life. But I think we count now on consistent delivery to the major leagues of real, bona fide players every year. That was very important. And that's why I feel so good about the future. We can debate whether it could have been done quicker. I think that's a fair position to take. Perhaps it could have.
But the way I see this team now, I have a philosophy about teams. I didn't invent this. Many people feel this way. You have your defense up the middle, and your power on the corners. I think that's the kind of team we look to have next year. We will have young, athletic, talented guys who are going to become a really good defense up the middle. We are going to have power on the corners, and that's a really good place to be with your position players. We have a very strong bullpen that we're very proud of. Finally. It took some time. But a lot of young guys in that bullpen, too, so they should be here for a long time.
Now, everything begins and ends with your rotation. That continues to be the area of greatest concern, but we're going to go into '11 in a stronger position than we've ever been in. We always have had a long list of guys who could be in that rotation. A year ago, we talked about '12 or '13. Well, now we can look at the '11 rotation and identify let's say six guys out of whom we can almost surely know that four will come out of that group, and that doesn't yet include Strasburg. And that doesn't yet include the other guy or two that Mike and the owners are intent on acquiring this offseason."
This year, the Nats made a 10-game jump in the win column based on the performance of the bullpen over the disaster that was the 2009 pen. Next season, the improvement has to come from the starters making those same jumps, with Jordan Zimmermann channeling all that talent into a consistent Major League starter, and John Lannan and Jason Marquis pitching to career norms. Those things, combined with Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle, should help the Nats evolved from a 68-game winner to a mid-70s win team.
If they add a proven winner at the top of the rotation as Mike Rizzo professes to want to do, and Stephen Strasburg comes back healthy, then we can start talking about competing.
THE STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
Yesterday, Kasten acknowledged some of the shortcomings of his tenure, but also discussed some of the reasons for optimism.
"Well, obviously, this job is far from complete, so you can't give a final grade. But no one in this business is truly successful unless they win it all. and yet there are things which are real milestones and real progress on the way to becoming successful. There have been real good things that have happened here in the last couple years that were important to us, starting with a scouting and player development system that I'm really proud of, with people that I'm proud of, starting with Mike. People right behind him like Roy Clark and Chris Kline. On the development side, Bob Boone and Doug Harris. All these people do terrific work and have now put us in a place where we always want to get to, and that is having a pipeline that delivers players annually to the major leagues. You can't really accomplish much until you're in that situation."
"I think the future is really bright and that we now are in a position maybe for the first time since we got back to D.C. to really, really compete. And as you've heard me say before, it's a short distance from competing to contending. So those things are real progress. Is it success yet? No, it isn't, because success is winning, and we haven't done that yet. But we've made real progress, and the future, I think, is very, very bright, and it's a great time to be a Nats fan."
The single biggest factor in the reconstruction of the Washington Nationals was the restructuring of the Amateur Scouting and Player Development departments. The Nats have pros in there now, not cronies and amateurs and should be churning out professional baseball players for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days where Kory Casto and Mike Hinckley were the top "prospects". The Nats are drafting smart, signing their picks, and moving them through the system, like real franchises do.
I was frankly surprised no one asked him about this, so I piped up near the end of the questioning. I tried to phrase the question in order to get more than a numbers answer. And though Kasten did get into the numbers and the market eventually, he did acknowledge that the losing and the way the team has operated in its six seasons has severely affected the turnstiles.
In 2005, the Nationals season ticket base was over 22,000, playing in depressing, decrepit RFK Stadium. Now, it might be half that based on the estimates of some of the late-season crowds. I asked Kasten, considering that and the five out of six last place finishes and consecutive 100-loss seasons, did he think the Nats had squandered all their goodwill with the fan base and essentially had to start over, enticing fans to come back to the Park.
"I think squandered is probably too strong of a word. Clearly, some of it has dissipated. But let me tell you, I've lived through this before and I've seen it many, many times before. It's going to come back if you have the right market, and this is the right market. A huge fan base. A good mix. A diverse fan base with good demographics. And much better in terms of the economy and disposable income that most other markets.
As soon as we get our product to where we've always wanted it to be but haven't gotten it yet, this is going to be great. And there will be a day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future when we shoot past 22,000 season tickets. But first we have to get our jobs done. The fans will come if we do that."
Kasten was asked point-blank if he was confident that ownership was willing to spend to make the team competitive.
"I think so. I hope so. It's what we've been talking about. We think we're getting closer. And I know the owners are intent on making this successful and on winning here. Believe me, it's their best case. It's how all of us do better, when we win. They're intent on backing Mike up and pursuing the things he wants to pursue and giving him the resources to do it. That's all we talked about all summer.
I think we're all on the same page. So when I talk about an active offseason, it's because it's what we've all talked about, internally with each other. Again, let's see how the winter unfolds. There's still many unknowns about it. But I do know the desire is there. The willingness is there. And I think the follow-through will be there too, I really do."
And was asked specifically if he thought the team would re-sign Adam Dunn.
"Well, I'm going to say for today, yes, I think so. Everyone here knows I hope so. I said that externally and I've said the internally and I've said that to Adam. You have to wait and see. Obviously, the free agent window is shorter this year so we'll all know, I think, sooner than we might have in the past.
|Kasten during the last home game of the 2010 season. (Photo by C. Nichols/Nats News Network)|